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History of Art in the Renaissance Period

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The Renaissance was, essentially, a revival or rebirth of cultural awareness and learning that took place during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It followed the Middle Ages, and was basically a time of the revival of learning after the Middle Ages, or Dark Ages, a time, like its name suggests, with little increase of ideas, inventions or developments. In looking in to the matter of how the Renaissance first started, one understands that it was a combination of many political, socio-economic and philosophical events that occurred over a short span, which together sparked the fire that was the Renaissance. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD occurred because of the two new trade routes (the Silk route and Spice Route) that developed. Along with the capital breaking, the Avignon Papacy (1305-78) that consisted of the seven Bishops of Rome were known to be partial to the French kings, and rulers across Europe felt side-lined by the new French-centric Court. Henry VIII broke away from the Pope, leading to a reduction of Church authority.

The Church also claimed that the Bubonic Plague (1347-51) was spread by the Jews and they killed all Jews who survived the plague. Seeing this, the people lost faith in Church and further broke away from it. (This strengthened the “opening up of the human mind”) Also the rise of the middle class was witnessed, with wealthy merchants becoming the new “rich class” and gradually taking power away from nobility. This new middle class bought art and popularized it among the class. (E.g.- Medicci family were big patrons of art.) They also spread out over Europe and cities like Florence, Venice, Sienna, Pisa, Bologna, Milan, GenĂšve and Padua developed and became rich with the merchant class funding all the churches. A series of Crusades to recapture Jerusalem that occurred led to the discovery of many new cultures and different thinking processes were observed. In doing so, Europe opened its eye to new possibilities. The Andalusian Scholarship in Cordoba was a hot spot of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle coming from different parts of Europe, Central Asia.

It was from them that the Europeans were influenced by the idea of humanism; the faith that humans possess the power or potentiality to solve their own problems through reliance primarily on reason and scientific method applied with courage and vision. Humanism said that people should read the works of the greats and focus on writing, and the arts. This of course was like a setting stone on which the entire ideology of the Renaissance artists rested. Humanism believes in the widest possible development of art and the awareness of beauty, including the appreciation of nature’s loveliness and splendor, so that the aesthetic experience becomes a pervasive reality in the lives of all people. It is with Renaissance that the artists first start thinking of “beauty” as a concept.

With the arts the artists began to think on their own and those movements began to spread. It was not just what the church said anymore that was right. Another of the new beliefs was scholasticism, which was the opposite of humanism. Scholastics thought that people should spend more time the sciences, they also wanted the church and science to be brought together as one. As new scientific discoveries were made many of the churches theories were beginning to be questioned. Some of the new scientific discoveries consisted of theories that went against the churches beliefs. For example, the Copernican theory of the sun, not earth being the center of the universe.

The renaissance period in art history corresponds to the beginning of the great western age of discovery and exploration, when a general desire developed to examine all aspects of nature and the world. Art, during this period, became valued — not merely as a vehicle for religious and social identity, but even more as a mode of personal, aesthetic expression. During the Renaissance there were many drastic changes in the style of art. Early renaissance artist sought to create art forms consistent with the appearance of the natural world and with their experience of human personality and behavior, and artists studied the way light hits objects and the way our eyes percieve light. These artists made an effort to go beyond straightforward transcription of nature, to provide the work of art with ideal, intangible qualities, giving it a beauty and significance greater and more permanent than that actually found in nature.

A new kind of paint called oil paint was used. This allowed the artist to create texture , mix colors, and allow more time for corrections before it dried. During the Renaissance, art was a branch of knowledge. It was a way to show God and his creations, as well as a science, of anatomy and perspective. Also during the Renaissance there were many people who used art as a way to record discoveries and inspired people to take pleasure in the world around them. During the Renaissance, artists were no longer regarded as mere artisans, as they had been to the medieval past, but for the first time emerged as independent personalities, compared to poets and writers. Many artisans merged mathematics with art, in order to become more precise in their measurements and to make sure an object was supported both rationally and proportionally. However, Renaissance artists also placed human concerns and feelings at the center of their works. Such optimism combined with intellectual curiosity and increasing worldliness made it possible for art to be valued.

The Renaissance period can be split into three parts, namely;
Trecento – 14th century
Quattrocento – 15th century
Cinquecento – 16th century

The Trecento period marked the arrival of Giotto who is largely agreed to be the first master of the Renaissance period. His teacher was Cimabue. The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy (1303-10) is one of his most celebrated works. On seeing his work, it is very obvious that he started painting from life and was the first to really understand anatomy of the body when applied with perspective. Following Giotto were other artists who helped contribute little by little to the perfection that is achieved in High Renaissance. Donatello, one of the best sculptors of time, made David; a work that is synonymous to the name Renaissance. Pisanello, a personal favourite (I love his animals). Paolo Uccello, who was a “scientist among the painters”, studied the mathematical and scientific methodology of ‘correctness’ of anatomy. He was known for his almost-correct perspective, being the first to really attempt to study it. In Dominico Veneziano’s work, perspective gets noticeably better, with proper guidelines to follow.

With the start of Quattrocento, Masaccio was the first to use scientific perspective. In his work Expulsion from Paradise and Tribune Money, we see for the first time correct perspective, correct foreshortening of the human figure and also a cast shadow. Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli’s teacher, made the female figure strangely disproportionate, with an elongated neck, and too-small shoulders. This marked the new obsession with artists, how to make the distortion of the body appeasing and use it as a tool to convey the emotion an artist desired. His later works develop a softness, with the outline disappearing; a character specific to Renaissance.

Then came the achievers of correct perspective, namely; Piero Della Franchesca, who preferred perspective and light in architecture. Andrea Mantegna, a Venitian painter, who mastered foreshortening and spatial illusion, lowering the horizon, and worm’s eye perspective. Its after Mantegna that one sees landscapes being introduced in the background as confidence in perspective grows. Also, as confidence for painting figures grows, the drapery is used less and less i.e. nudes start to appear. Bellini, another Venitian painter, had a sensuous and colourist style. Though Bellini’s perspective was perfected, he lacked Sfumato (the quality of air in a picture) in his works. Botticelli was probably the prime of early Renaissance, but he can’t be included in High Renaissance because there isn’t that same grace and beauty in his figures. His figures were all slightly elongated due to the influence of his teacher, Fillippo Lippi. He first introduced Roman themes in painting, a favourite of the High Renaissance artists because of the opulence in use of different figures and characters.

The Birth of Venus and Primavera being examples. Interestingly, Venus is the first fully nude figure ever painted. It is with Botticelli that one can see the figures starting to get disproportionate, with exaggerated proportions to achieve a desired effect/emotion. Pietro Perugino, Rafael’s teacher, was the last artist of early renaissance. In 1494 he made Pieta, the first attempt to paint a full grown male figure on a woman’s lap. After hearing so much about Florence, it would be natural to assume that the next – and most glorious – phase in Art History would occur in the same location. Well, no, this didn’t happen. Florence met the end of its Renaissance heyday in the 1490s for several reasons. First, Lorenzo de Medici – arguably the greatest of the Medici – died in 1492. This brought a close to what is often referred to as the “Laurentian Age” in Florence. Of equal importance, a rabidly religious monk named Savonarola was busy in Florence decrying the decadence of its art, which, in his opinion, had caused moral decay and would, quite possibly, bring the Apocalypse upon the Florentines.

As is always the sad case in instances such as these, many were willing to listen to Savonarola. The powerful Medici was expelled, fleeing to Rome. Savonarola inspired, for a time, great religious fervor in the townspeople, to the point of organizing the first “bonfire of the vanities”, wherein “sacrilegious” items were burned in public. Loyalty being fickle, Savonarola himself suffered a similar fate in 1498. The damage to Florence’s profile in the arts, however, had already been irreparably done. Finally, the Florentine scene had made it a trend for those in Power (elsewhere) to acquire their own, personal artistic geniuses. On a grand scale, at this time, many were keen to “keep up with” the Medici. The ranks of the Florentine artists were plundered, lured to other locations by promises of wealth and fame. Even though Florence was left with not much talent, it had already trained the talent that went elsewhere. In one of those ironic twists of fate, nearly all of the “greats” (excepting the Venetians) of the High Renaissance were either trained in or influenced by the Florentine School.

The High Renaissance period represented a culmination. The tentative artistic explorations of the Proto-Renaissance, which caught hold and flowered during the Early Renaissance, burst into full bloom during the High Renaissance. Artists no longer pondered the art of antiquity. They now had the tools, technology, training and confidence to go their own way, secure in the knowledge that what they were doing was as good – or better – than anything that had been done before.‹Additionally, the High Renaissance represented a convergence of talent – an almost obscene wealth of talent – concentrated in the same area during the same small window of time. Astounding, truly, considering what the odds against this have to have been.

Not long at all, in the grand scheme of things. Leonardo began producing his important works in the 1480’s, so most art historians agree that the 1480’s were the start of the High Renaissance. Raphael died in 1520. One could argue that either Raphael’s death or the Sack of Rome, in 1527, marked the end of the High Renaissance. No matter how it’s figured, though, the High Renaissance was of no more than forty years’ duration. A little bit in Milan (per early Leonardo), a little bit in Florence (per early Michelangelo), smaller bits scattered here and there throughout northern and central Italy and a whole lot in Rome. Rome was the place to which one fled when a Duchy was under attack, a Republic was being reorganized or one simply grew tired of wandering.‹Another attractive feature Rome offered artists, at this time, was a series of ambitious Popes.

Each of these Popes, in turn, outspent the previous Pope on elaborate works of art. In fact, if this string of Holy Fathers agreed on any one secular policy, it was that Rome needed better art. By the end of the 15th-century, Popes were coming from the sorts of wealthy, powerful families that were accustomed to underwriting public art and employing their own private artists. Now, a Pope had a great deal of authority. If one was an artist, and the Pope “requested” one’s presence in Rome, one certainly packed off to Rome. (Not to mention the fact that these Holy “requests” were often delivered by armed emissaries.)‹In any case, artists tend to go where arts funding is found. Between Papal requests and the money being in Rome, the Big Three Names of the High Renaissance each found themselves in Rome being creative, at certain points.

They included Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) master of oil painting and sfumato; Michelangelo (1475-1564), the greatest sculptor and fresco painter of the day; Raphael (1483-1520), the finest painter of the High Renaissance; Correggio (1489-1534), the Parma painter, best-known for his illusionistic frescoes and altarpiece panel paintings; and Donato Bramante (1444-1514), the leading architect of the High Renaissance. Provincial painters included Luca Signorelli (1450-1523), whose Sistine Chapel murals and Orvieto Cathedral frescoes are believed to have been an important influence on Michelangelo.

One of the greatest of Old Masters in the history of art, Leonardo da Vinci excelled as a painter, sculptor, engineer, architect and scientist. Renowned as a master of oil painting, including the painterly techniques of chiaroscuro (use of shadow to create a 3-D effect) and sfumato (use of glazes in slightly different tones of colour creating an almost imperceptible transition from light to dark), both techniques are visible in his masterpiece, Mona Lisa. Unfortunately, Leonardo’s creative gifts were so diverse that he completed only a handful of artistic projects.

Even so, he was responsible for several masterpieces of Renaissance art, including the Mona Lisa; Vitruvian Man, arguably the world’s best known drawing; and The Last Supper (1495-8, oil and tempera fresco, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan), one of the best known Biblical paintings of all time. Sadly only a fraction of his art survives (about 15 pictures in all), not least because of his thirst for (often disastrous) experimentation with new paint techniques. Even so, these few paintings, together with a number of sketchbooks crammed with examples of figure drawing (including some of the best drawings of the Renaissance), plus anatomical studies, scientific diagrams, and his views on the techniques and aesthetics of painting, comprise a legacy rivalled only by Michelangelo.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, was born in Florentine territory. He had exceptional gifts as a painter, sculptor, architect and engineer. Twenty years younger than his rival Leonardo da Vinci and eight years older than his rival Raphael, his extraordinary diversity of talent made him one of the great inspirational forces behind the High Renaissance. He reinvigorated the classical idea that the nude human body is a sufficient vehicle for the expression of all emotions which a painter can depict, a notion that had an enormous influence on the subsequent development of Academic art – and on art as a whole. Above all, he promoted the idea that painting and sculpture merited the same status as architecture, and that painters and sculptors were real artists, rather than mere decorators or stone masons. Several of his works, notably his statues Pieta and David, and his Genesis and Last Judgment frescos in the Sistine Chapel in Rome – are regarded as some of the most influential artistic accomplishments in the history of art.

Italian Renaissance painter, Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), was born in Urbino to Giovanni Sanzio, a poet and painter in the court of Guidobaldo Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino He is also known as ‘Il Divino’ (The Divine One). Influenced by Pietro Perugino, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Masaccio and Fra Bartolomeo, he is famous for the perfect grace and spatial geometry of his High Renaissance painting and drawing. His most notable works include his frescos in the Raphael Rooms (including the Stanza della Segnatura) at the Palace of the Vatican – long regarded as being among the greatest Renaissance paintings – and his altarpiece compositions The Sistine Madonna and The Transfiguration. He was also an important contributor to Renaissance architecture, in works like Church of St Maria, Chigi Chapel, Rome, the Palazzo Pandolfini (facade), Florence, and Villa Madama, Rome.

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